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Toilets of the Wild Frontier By Graham Askey

BY READERS DIGEST

2nd Oct 2022 Book Reviews

Toilets of the Wild Frontier By Graham Askey

You could say that new satirical book Toilets of the Wild Frontier is the ultimate bathroom read.

Detailing the world’s worst WCs, it gives a new meaning to toilet humour yet with a serious message about poverty and sanitation in the developing world.

By Gwyneth Rees

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It’s a fact of life that wherever you are in the world, you are—sooner or later—going to need to spend a penny.

That’s typically not an issue in the familiar holiday haunts and resorts, but when you head off the beaten track? Well, you never quite know the toilet facilities that will greet you. While some may be as fresh and clean as a mountain stream, others might be the stuff of nightmares.

With that in mind, seasoned traveller Graham Askey has thoughtfully compiled a hilarious new book detailing the world’s lousiest loos and beastly bathrooms.

Venturing deep into locations where cleaners fear to tread, he has come back to share his close encounters of the turd kind in Toilets of the Wild Frontier.

With tongue firmly in cheek, the author catalogues more than 30 public toilets across 10 countries—Tajikistan, China, Indonesia, Sudan, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Benin, and Burkina Faso—that really have to be seen to be believed.

Some are so ramshackle that you suspect that it is only the cobwebs keeping them together, or the cockroaches pushing back against collapsing walls.

Others are so filthy that you wonder why the makers bothered to go that extra mile by placing a bucket within—clearly, none of the users can aim.

In some parts of Indonesia, meanwhile, you can find toilets on 10ft poles or rafts with a hole providing immediate access to the river below.

And in many cases, they are “less loo and more a cupboard of shame” as Askey wryly observes.

The good news is that whether you find yourself deep in the jungle or high up a mountain, the locals usually have you covered when nature calls.

The bad news is that cover can range from crumbling bricks to corroding corrugated tin, tattered fabric or even asbestos sheets—not to mention the less than salutary organic coverings inside.

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Toilets of the Wild Frontier by Graham Askey provides a celebration of the wonder and the beauty of the humble toilet.

As Askey reports, in some countries such as China, you may find toilets which are communal, where privacy begins and ends with closing your eyes.

In others, such as Benin, you will find a makeshift commode in full view of the villagers.

Toilets of the Wild Frontier is written as a report by the fictitious Toilet & Urinal Restoration & Design Society, which views toilet chambers as “the pinnacle of mankind’s architectural achievements”.

This society, it is claimed, launched the International Toilet Design Awards in 1973 “to celebrate the art form and spread awareness of the underappreciated aspects of this globe-spanning mode of cultural expression”.

In accordance with this gag, the book is laid out to present the fictitious national competition entries, and then to cover the awards, where toilet facilities are judged and awarded based on criteria such as form, materials, location, and functionality. 

As the author, under the guise of the society, states, “Unsurprisingly, the Toilet Design Awards competition is always stiff. Our judges have scoured the planet with absolute rigour to find the brightest and the best in toilet design.”

He adds: “We hope that by the time you have read this publication you will have gained a thorough insight into the myriad variations in design, and a deep understanding of the complex role the toilet plays in lives across the world.”

While the ‘entries’ are, as you would expect, abominable, the accompanying gushing text is hilarious. How Askey is able to describe such infect-infested, squalid sites in such flowery, pompous language is a satirical work of art in itself.

For example: “The sophisticated clean lines of this construction belie the progressive nature of the internal design, whereby both male and female sides have a pair of toilet holes in the floor, so that friends and family members can remain sociable throughout the process.”

Beware, though, because each entry is accompanied by a photo, taken by Graham, and while some are actually awe-inspiring—such as a tilting hut perched high on a mountain—others may require a strong stomach.

It is important to say that while the book brings together some truly out-there outhouses, it is not ridiculing the communities in which these toilets can be found.

Indeed, it makes a serious point about these people, uniformly having to contend with poverty and daily hardships in extreme environments, getting by as best they can.

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 Author Graham Askey has travelled the world to discover the world’s most unusual toilets.

As Toilets of the Wild Frontier explains, the constraints of poverty and a lack of running water or electricity means people have little choice but to make their own crude constructions.

Askey also has a keen awareness of the dangers associated with a lack of basic sanitation, observing that there are “genuine health concerns surrounding poor toilet facilities, with serious, even deadly risks of disease, sickness and contamination of drinking water.”

And he urges readers to check out the World Toilet Organisation to learn more about these serious issues and UN World Toilet Day, a global awareness day held on November 19th each year.

The author, a retired builder who has visited more than 90 countries in the last four decades, first began his project of documenting weird and wacky loos in 2013.

It is clear that he has made the most of these travels, immerses himself in local life, often eating and living with locals for extended period of times.

He writes about how he has nothing but respect for these places and has “had some of the best experiences in my life” within them.

And he adds that he is proud to have “personally tested many of the toilets portrayed in this book, even the ones exposed to a full public view of the proceedings.”

Given this, Toilets of the Wild Frontier should really be understood as a joyous celebration of the resilience and ingenuity of differing cultures in solving an age-old problem.

And that’s why I believe this book will be such a hit: because it features and photographs bizarre toilets from around the world and in doing so provides real insight into the culture and daily lives of the people who use them.

More than living up to its title, Toilets of the Wild Frontier is travel writing in its truest sense.

Toilets of the Wild Frontier by Graham Askey (Eleusinian Press Ltd) is out now, published in hardcover and available through Amazon or Eleusinian Press Ltd in hardcover, priced at £13.99. For more information about author Graham Askey, visit  https://www.insideotherplaces.com/.

Q&A INTERVIEW WITH GRAHAM ASKEY

We speak with Toilets of the Wild Frontier author Graham Askey to find out more about his new book, and fascination with tracking down the world’s most mind-boggling bogs.

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Q. How did you first get the travelling bug? 

A. After hitchhiking a lot in England in the early ‘80s I decided to try it in Europe, including a trip to Morocco and back. I slept out in the open, in parks, fields and beaches. This gave me the confidence and urge to carry on and see more of the world.  

Q. What gave you the idea to document the toilets of developing nations? 

A. When I visited Tajikistan, I saw a few quirky and rather shambolic home-made toilet shacks that I took photos of, simply because they were funny to look at. I soon noticed what a wonderful variety of styles there were and every one of them had its own individual character.

At the time I wrote a humorous blog post about the top 10 examples that I’d seen, and it became my most read piece of writing. After this I realised that every country had its own forms of toilet design and construction, even when they were just bodged together from whatever materials were lying around. From then on, I made a point of documenting them.

Q. The book is satirical, but it has a serious message about sanitation issues. Can you expand upon this? 

A. Poor sanitation is a major health hazard as it can be a source of many serious diseases, such as cholera. For children in poor communities, deprived of decent health care, even a brief spell of diarrhoea can be fatal. The kind of toilets featured in the book are generally a reflection of the poverty of the places they’re in. I hope by taking an everyday subject like having a crap, a subject that people the world over are familiar with, I can use humour to give a little insight into the everyday realities of poverty. Everyone can appreciate in a general sense that poverty is a bad thing but until you’ve squatted over a festering pit, in a cockroach-infested shack, in only a dim candlelight, with no toilet paper, you may not truly grasp the full sensory reality of what poverty can mean in practice.

Q. Which country, in your opinion, has the worst toilet facilities, and why?

A. There are two ways of looking at what makes a bad toilet: the most obvious being the disgust created by the sights and smells of the experience and in this respect almost anywhere in tropical Africa is hard to beat.  Heat and humidity are the ideal catalyst for excremental fermentation. Most Africans take a lot of care with personal hygiene, though; they understand the importance of handwashing as food is eaten communally by hand. Once their bodies have processed a meal, they generally don’t want to see it again.

This isn’t necessarily true elsewhere, though. In Tajikistan, for example, I sometimes saw excrement deposited a long way from the hole in the floor that passed for toilet facilities, presumably for later users to enjoy.

This brings us to the second approach: cultural attitudes to toilets. China is a good example of this where some toilets were little more than sheds with a trench that you crouched over next to other users, who you could chat to in between bouts of straining. These weren’t always disgusting in the hygiene sense but for a reserved Westerner, used to a purely personal experience with the porcelain, it can be a social challenge of nightmarish proportions. It’s important to say that the book concentrates more on lampooning the architectural and design failings of the toilets, and the cultural peccadillos of the users, rather than going into too much gory detail.

Q. How do they compare to the UK's public lavatories? 

A. Back in the good old days of the ‘70s, cold and grim Victorian loos with waxy toilet paper that had no discernible absorbent properties were the norm. Today, these have largely been replaced by public conveniences more acceptable to modern tastes, without the visual and olfactory demands of developing world toilets. However, it needs to be said that some of the worst toilets I’ve ever endured have been at English music festivals. It is certainly the only occasion where I have witnessed the contents of a toilet higher than the seat! It is at these events where the English concern for propriety and hygiene is cast aside by the chemically and alcoholically incapacitated revellers attempting to use the facilities, often with traumatising results. 

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Seasoned traveller Graham Askey has braved the world’s worst toilets, and lived to tell the tale.

Q. What do you hope readers will gain from reading your book?

A. Primarily, I hope they have a good laugh but if they also gain a little insight into some of the realities of everyday life in poorer places then all well and good.

Q. How did you feel about having to use these facilities when nature called? 

A. As much as I try to adopt a zen-like calm when enveloped by the putrid miasma of exceptionally bad facilities, or while battling the copious wildlife you can find in them, I don't always succeed. However, I’ve become relatively hardened to the experience, so there’s no chance of totally freaking out. If it's good enough for the locals then I have a duty to accept it with good grace.

Q. Do the people in these countries appreciate that their toilets are so bad?

A. When you’re struggling to pay to send your kids to school or buy medicine for an illness, the standard of your toilets is not high on your list of priorities. While some communities could benefit from some education in matters of sanitation, I think that the subject is more determined by economics than anything else. I doubt that most people spend a lot of time thinking about it but once they earn enough money to improve their property, better toilets naturally come along with it. A lot of the rural toilets are a lot better than they look, in that they perform the function required of them well without too much of a stink.

Q. You make a point of travelling to locations off the beaten track. Why do you do this, and what have you learned this way? 

A. The main thing I find is that people in these places are almost always more friendly than many Western cultures or locations that have well-developed tourist industries. Mass tourism doesn’t always show much respect for local culture, which only exacerbates the urge for the unscrupulous to exploit relatively rich foreigners. This creates a vicious spiral of negative interaction. However, off the beaten track, it rarely occurs to people with little experience of foreigners to rip them off and so they then apply their cultures of hospitality to us as they would their fellows, which are often far more developed than our own. I’ve experienced some of the most generous hospitality from some of the poorest people on the planet, which is truly humbling.

As much as I love visiting places of historical, cultural or geographic interest, it is the interactions with people that leave the most abiding memories and I’ve made genuine friends as a result who I now go back to visit and even stay with in their homes. I get a far deeper insight into local cultures this way and I find the minutiae of everyday life fascinating, although I may be somewhat alone in the travel blogging community in this respect. Naturally, travelling like this opens up far more possibilities of expanding my toilet experiences than conventional holidays. Hence this book.

Q. Which countries are still on your travel wish list, and why?

A. Yemen has been number one on my list for a long time, but the long-running war has made it off-limits. I’m fascinated by the mud architecture there, where even 10-storey buildings can be made of mud. I also want to go to the Congo as I’m a big fan of the music. Needless to say, I’m sure both countries will have some challenging toilets to look forward to.  

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